On-the-go learning: mastering the art of working with Generation Z By Christian KochApprenticeships 24 Jul 2023 Gen Z workers learn and absorb information differently – and employers need to recognise it. Work in an office – or remotely – with Gen Z and you’ll probably know the way they view the workplace is different to previous generations, whether it’s their prioritisation of work-life balance or their preference for Slack over emails. Being the first generation born into a world where the internet, social media and mobile phones have always existed, Gen Z’s relationship with technology means they learn and absorb information differently, too. Employers are adapting to these needs in bold and exciting ways, such as making lectures available to download as videos or transcripts, using gamification and emojis during lectures, or delivering training in digestible 15-minute chunks. Although students will always scribble notes word-for-word from a tutor speaking standing at the front of a hall – a mode of learning that has existed since early-medieval universities – today, digital natives are likely to be recording these sessions on their smartphones, converting it into a podcast they can listen to on the treadmill, or messaging thumbs up or down to the educator half-way through to let them know how they think the lecture is going. Does the world of on-the-go studying represent the Netflixisation of learning or is it something that truly benefits a new generation of trainees? Here two companies tell us how they’re adapting their learning methods to meet the needs of Gen Z… Blended learning Blended learning is a mix of face-to-face tuition and online learning that has been embraced by many organisations since the pandemic, as it combines flexibility (digital teaching) with interactivity (the classroom element). Accountancy firm Grant Thornton has adopted a blended learning approach, with trainees given the option to receive training weighted 60/40 in favour of face-to-face or digital learning. “Gen Z have a self-awareness not seen in previous generations – they understand what their individual learning styles are,” says Joanne Ritchie, Head of Technical Learning and Early Careers at Grant Thornton. “They know the way they study the best, whether it’s face-to-face or digital. [Offering a blended approach] allows us to give people what they need to thrive in the workplace, rather than being based on academic aptitude.” Blended learning is particularly beneficial for neurodiverse students. “Today, many young people understand aspects of their neurodiversity and how it impacts their learning needs,” says Ritchie. “If a person has dyslexia or ADHD, this [blended learning] allows them to access alternative delivery mechanisms to suit their learning requirements.” Recording lectures When learning went online during the pandemic, many organisations started recording lectures, seminars and even tutorials for the first time. These have then been made available to students as downloadable videos – a medium particularly favoured by Gen Z (60% of 14-23-year-olds prefer YouTube as a learning tool rather than books, according to research by digital learning firm Pearson). Although these videos are obviously useful for students who have missed a lecture due to a dental appointment, they have other uses too. “Pre-recorded sessions allow students to access online learning in their own time,” says Syeda Shams, Deputy Finance Training Schemes Manager at HMRC. “Rather than trying to recall what the teacher said or using their own notes, they can rewind and replay the session [many students listen to pre-recorded lectures at a slower 1.5x speed to ensure they haven’t missed anything]. The feedback we get from our students is overwhelmingly positive.” Recorded lectures can benefit students who may find it difficult to attend a physical session, such as those with accessibility needs, or parenting/caring duties. The videos can also help neurodiverse students who may need extra time to process information or feel anxious in social situations such as being in a classroom. Transcripts Recorded learning isn’t solely an auditory and visual thing; many businesses also make transcripts of the lecture/webinar available for download too. “Transcripts are a relatively new phenomenon as we previously only offered them to those with medical needs,” says Ritchie. “Some people have a preference to learn by reading rather than listening, while the transcripts can also be used for reference purposes.” Smartphones at the ready With British Gen Z-ers spending an average of 5.9 hours a day on their phones, according to one recent Adobe survey, educators are realising the key to embedding knowledge in these age groups is delivering learning content directly to their mobiles. This isn’t just about making recorded videos and transcripts of training sessions available for download, but also allowing trainees to use their mobiles within the classroom for researching, receiving (and giving) feedback or recording sessions. At Grant Thornton, 67% of associates access external training through mobile devices. “Pre-recorded material doesn’t work for some aspects of learning such as practical workshops, but everything else needs to be mobile-ready” says Ritchie. To ensure trainees aren’t scrolling TikTok videos mobiles during online training sessions, Grant Thornton requires them to have cameras switched on. “It’s so we can see their expressions and faces, and make sure they’re engaged.” Equipping students with the technology needed for learning is also a big help, with Shams noting all HMRC trainees receive their own laptop and mobile phone. Gamification Put simply, gamification is about using the principles of play to lessen the cognitive load of learning. Gamification makes learning fun and “sticky” (i.e. easier to remember) via methods such as quizzes (multiple-choice and true-false quizzes are popular), using avatars instead of students’ faces, or rewarding trainees for their achievements. Gamification can increase employee engagement by 50%, according to a 2019 eLearning study. “Because this generation are so fast-paced in the way they learn, you’ve got to be constantly engaging them in webinars/seminars, as well allowing them to ask questions and interact,” says Ritchie. “In some classes, we might say, ‘Get your phones out and we’ll do a live quiz [with students voting and selecting options via their mobiles].’” “Quizzes are a great icebreaker to start sessions or to end them, plus it gets discussions going,” says HMRC’s Shams. Grant Thornton also uses gamification to allow students to give instant feedback on how their training session might be progressing. “We know that every 10 minutes or so of training, we need to be saying, ‘How is everybody feeling? Thumbs up? Or thumbs down?’ Students then respond with their devices. We also get them to submit words that might be on their mind during a training session. We did one last week, where responses included ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘too fast’.” This feedback can help organisations shape future learning content, but it also gives students the opportunity to speak up, too. “Some students never put their hands up in a classroom to say how they’re feeling,” says Ritchie. “But because live polls are anonymous, they allow students to interact in ways they’ve never done before.” Interactivity “When we have a bulky topic or a subject that’s difficult to understand, we try to make them more interactive,” says Shams. “At HMRC, we have breakout groups where trainees are split into small groups to have discussions or do an activity before returning to the main meeting space to talk about what they’ve learned.” Interactivity also works with online webinars/sessions too, with trainees at many organisations encouraged to use chat rooms in Teams and Zoom. Personalisation Many organisations such as Grant Thornton are personalising the learning experience for students by tailoring training towards their needs. “If you’re doing an Excel course, you might log on and complete a basic questionnaire,” explains Ritchie. “It could ask you whether you’ve previously used Excel or studied maths/economics. Depending on the outcome of this questionnaire, you might go to a different phase [level of learning]. They [Gen Z] like this as it means they’re not held back by their own talent, while also allowing them to receive extra learning if they need it.” Personalised learning helps with staff retention too, adds Ritchie. “The mentality where individuals stay 5-10 years at an organisation is gone. This generation knows what they want, and if you don’t give them things like personalised learning, they’re happy to leave [the company].” Snackable learning Forget day-long workshops and lectures so intense students are left scratching their heads the next day trying to recall what they learned. Bite-size learning (or ‘snackable learning’) offers pupils the chance to learn more efficiently over a much shorter time-frame. By delivering training in easily-digestible chunks (condensing sessions into 20-minute segments, for example), the brevity of these sessions helps embed knowledge further (as the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve suggests, students are more likely to disremember information if they attempt to learn everything in one big session). At HMRC, trainees receive tuition via ‘learning bursts’, described by Shams as “15-20-minute sessions on specific topics”. These are often live sessions/webinars that students can attend during their lunch break. Sustainable training methods “We’re finding many of our trainees want training to be electronic rather than physical because of the sustainability impact,” says Grant Thornton’s Ritchie. “They’d rather read material from their devices, rather than carrying books around or having materials delivered to their home.” Soft skills Earlier this summer, KPMG announced it was offering classes on ‘soft skills’ for Gen Z recruits who entered the workplace during or after the pandemic. The extra tuition – which will teach younger employees how to give presentations and collaborate within teams – started after the big four firm noticed junior staff were lacking confidence with basic communication skills in the workplace. “One of the biggest challenges for Gen Z recruits is impactful professional communication,” says Ritchie. “This is no criticism of them. After all, many haven’t been given the support to excel in that space during the pandemic. As an employer, it’s our duty-of-care to make sure they get that collaboration, conversation and confidence in speaking out.” “Sometimes you end up with an email or Teams message [written by younger trainee] written entirely in slang,” she adds. “We need to coach them more mindfully than we ever done before with previous generations.” Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Evening Standard, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He's also written about business for Accounting Technician, 20 and Director, where he is contributing editor.